Looking back and moving forward.

Seven years ago, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to go to Washington, D.C. and do an internship in the United States Senate. It was the most eye opening, humbling, exciting, and surreal experience I have had in my life. To work in the halls of Congress and brush elbows and ride trams with some of America’s most powerful lawmakers was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I lived five blocks from the White House and State Department, even closer to the the Watergate complex (yes that one) and just down the road from the Naval Observatory where the Vice President lives. I walked more miles around that city than I could ever recall. With every step I absorbed every ounce of history I could. The city energized me and I didn’t want to miss anything.

The buzz inside the Beltway at that time, being six months before the presidential election, was beyond comprehension. Everywhere you went you could feel the energy. Everyone was talking about it, no one could escape it, not even in your room at night could the vibe not be felt. I was there, in the middle of it all, living what felt like a dream. In some ways it was a dream. It was more than I could have ever hoped for.

In retrospect, I was nothing more than a kid who wrote a couple essays that must have been just good enough to be selected, but at the time I felt like I was part of something bigger, something important. Yes, I was just one of hundreds of interns who walk the halls of Congress each year, but for me it meant everything. I didn’t get there through connections (as I found out most of the interns did), I got there through merit and hard work.

One of the other interns (Josh Zimberg who I struck up an effortless friendship with) and I wrote a floor statement that was entered in the Congressional Record. It was in some ways, a validation of all of the hard work I had put into school and myself throughout my life. I felt that I had made it.

My time working in D.C. would come to pass faster than I realized or hoped though. A couple months after arriving it was time to head home. I remember my last day there, driving up Pennsylvania Avenue with the United States Capitol in my rear-view mirror thinking, no not thinking but truly believing, that I would be back sooner than later. What I failed to realize at the time was that the future prospects for almost every single person in my generation were about to get completely decimated.

The economic slowdown that started in early 2008, became a complete collapse by October and the ensuing recession that continued on for years changed all of our paths. It diminished our hopes, caused us to scale back our dreams, or at a minimum delay them until a date later to be determined. The recession hit like a brick. I had never felt such a loss of hope across literally everyone I knew before. Not even when 9/11 occurred did I feel that the future had slipped away. As much as 9/11 emboldened Americans, the financial collapse disheartened everyone even more. Growing up my dad always told me, “There’s always hope boy”. Hope, although never completely lost, became an endangered species.

In the month before I graduated from Grand Valley the United States economy lost over 800,000 jobs. 800,000 jobs in 31 days, that’s not a typo. That’s more people than the entire population of Detroit. You could fill the Big House in Ann Arbor 8 times and you would barely have the amount of people who lost their jobs in March 2009.

The economy would end up losing over 8,700,000 jobs across 2008-2009. If you took all of those who lost their jobs in those two years and put them in one state, it would have been the 11th most populous state in the country at that time. The unemployment rate literally doubled from 5% in January 2008 to 10% in October 2009. Our future disappeared before we even had a chance to start it.

The weather was stormy the day of graduation. Half of those graduating had completely saturated gowns. Looking back, the weather on that day was a perfect metaphor for the years ahead. It was surreal sitting at graduation listening to the speaker tell us that, “Even though times are tough you’ll find your way”. That was about as optimistic as things got in the entire speech. We’ll find our way, great, how up lifting I thought. A lot of us still haven’t found our way. It took me six months just to find a PART-time job, another fourteen months for that part-time job to become full-time. I was lucky, it took others much longer. The only reason why I did find one was because I had previously worked for the company and had a best friend convince his boss that I would be a good fit. Thank God for friends.

I had found work. It was not the work I thought I would have thinking back to that day less than a year before which now seemed like a lifetime ago when I drove away from D.C., but it was work nonetheless. As time went on it became clearer to me that whatever dreams I had of living and working in D.C., of being a public servant, of contributing to the betterment of our society, would have to be put on hold. I simply could not afford it. The financial collapse had suppressed everything, including wages. D.C. is an expensive place as it is and public service does not pay much to start.

When my loan repayments started, it became even clearer that those dreams would be pushed even further down the road. Even with a full-time job it was a struggle just to get by. My whole generation, or at least all of us who did not come from wealth, who were sold on the necessity of college, the availability of easy credit, and the flexibility of student loans are saddled with the same burden today.

I don’t regret going to college at all, not even for a moment, for I benefited in ways both big and small. I am better because I went, and even more so because I finished. However, $393 every month goes to my loans, it’s no small amount. Some of my friends pay even more. My payments would be more if not for financial assistance and Pell Grants. Once again, in a perverse way, I was lucky.

It has been almost six years since I started working with the company I work for. Six years since I officially put my dreams and aspirations on hold in the face of an economic disaster and reality. The lack of opportunities at that time led to a personally sensed loss of possibilities and so I gave in and became an adult as they say.

What I can also say is that I am so incredibly thankful for the time I have spent with my employer for it has given me opportunities and allowed me to grow in ways that I could have never envisioned. I am a better, more balanced, more confident and self-assured man today because someone took a chance on me all those years ago. It is an absolutely phenomenal company to work for that actually cares about its employees. If I spend the rest of my life working for it I’ll be fine with that. However, there’s a part of me that will always want that feeling I had back in 2008. Whether I ever pursue it is the only question.

Over the past seven years, while my hopes and dreams were suppressed, they never left me. What I did lose though was that feeling I had sitting in the basement of the Russell Senate building talking politics with the other interns. Conversations that were sometimes heated but always civil. Informed and at the same time enlightening, those conversations made me feel alive. It felt like what we did mattered. If I could have held on to the energy of those days forever I would have.

Somewhere I lost my passion for the conversations though. I even started to lose the will to express myself. I lost the driving force that took me to D.C. The things that once mattered, faded away. Maybe I became disillusioned with the discourse in our politics, or lethargic because of the state of our economy. I was never able to exactly pinpoint what happened but things started to feel stagnant.
Personally I feel more alive today than at any time since seeing the Capitol in my rear-view mirror. I guess in some ways the woman who spoke at our graduation was right. We did find our way, however meandering the path was, and now we get to decide wherever that path will lead in the future. We have taken our future back, gotten over the morass of the past 7 years, and are moving forward.
Over the past year my creativity and thirst for life and my former passions has returned. I have started to write again and express my opinions once more which has led me here, to my first blog. I know the preceding story has been lengthy, but I wanted you all to know why a blog and why now. To put something in context is essential to understanding what follows. Everything I have written in this post is in some part why this blog exists at all.

I would like to thank Britt (my sister) for suggesting I start this, who said my Facebook posts were inappropriately long and better saved for a blog. So here it is, for better or worse. In the weeks and months ahead I hope to write about topics of all sorts. I have a couple that I have started writing, but are not quite finished yet. They are coming soon I promise.

Some of you may agree with the things I write henceforth, some of you may not. My hope is that if we do not agree we can at least disagree without being disagreeable. I have my opinions, as do all of you, and I hope that in some ways this blog can be a place where we can share, debate, and better understand all points of view. The fabric of this country is woven of a more diverse thread of people with even more disparate beliefs and opinions than any other country in the world, and we are better because of that.

So here’s to rear-view mirrors, undying dreams, eternal hope, and the liberty to freely express ourselves without fear of suppression, intimidation or violence. Welcome to my blog, thank you for reading. God bless you all, and God Bless the United States of America.

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